No more Twitter on the go

One convincing argument made by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness) is that we intuitively misjudge the importance of the newest information, which is actually the most likely to be trivial and wrong. I wrote about this before.

It’s an especially important point in the Trump era, where I can easily get into an endless cycle: Washington Post, The Guardian, National Post, Slate, Twitter, Los Angeles Times, CBC, BBC, Twitter, etc.

Quite a while ago, I took email off my phone and have found it a big life improvement. I definitely don’t need to be instantly notified every time I have a new message. One slight inconvenience is that I often use email to send information and to-do items to myself. That’s pretty easily addressed, however, by saving them into Google Calendar instead or using the contact form.

Yesterday I went a step further and removed Twitter from my phone as well. It’s a bit of a harder case, since I do genuinely learn things from Twitter that I don’t see elsewhere. It’s where I learned about divestment at Laval, for instance. At the same time, the huge majority of what I see on Twitter is a waste of time and it’s an easy reflexive form of procrastination. I still have an account accessible via Sasha’s iPad Mini and my computers, so all told this should be a helpful move.

Academic agenda

I have assembled a pretty comprehensive to-do list for the next while.

I have assignments to grade for the environmentalism and social media course where I am a teaching assistant, and a coordination meeting with the other TA. Tomorrow, I am doing faculty and PhD student portraits for the department of political science. Saturday we are interviewing potential housemates, there is the U of T Judo annual general meeting, and I am performing a sketch with Trevor at Massey’s ‘Tea Hut’ talent show.

Most importantly, I am working toward a set of targets for completing my PhD proposal on campus fossil fuel divestment. By the 28th I am to submit the literature review and hypotheses. Then, select and justify case studies by March 8th, finish up methods by the 15th, and present the essentially finished proposal to my research design class on the 21st.

On May 5th or 6th I am presenting on Canadian climate change policy at the U of T Ethics Centre Graduate Conference, and I need to have my paper on Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipeline ready for the Canadian Political Science Association conference by May 23rd.

Dictatorships and the coercive dilemma

Coercive institutions are a dictator’s final defense in pursuit of political survival, but also his chief obstacle to achieving that goal. This book argues that autocrats face a coercive dilemma: whether to organize their internal security apparatus to protect against a coup, or to deal with the threat of popular unrest. Because coup-proofing calls for fragmented and socially exclusive organizations, while protecting against popular unrest demands unitary and inclusive ones, autocrats cannot simultaneously maximize their defenses against both threats. When dictators assume power, then, they must (and often do) choose which threat to prioritize. That choice, in turn, has profound consequences for the citizens who live under their rule. A fragmented, exclusive coercive apparatus gives its agents social and material incentives to escalate rather than dampen violence, and also hampers agents from collecting the intelligence necessary to engaged in targeted, discriminate, and pre-emptive repression. A unitary and inclusive apparatus configured to address significant mass unrest, however, has much better intelligence capability vis-a-vis its own citizens, and creates incentives for agents to minimize the use of violence and to rely instead on alternative means of repression, including surveillance and targeted pre-emption. Given its stronger intelligence capability, the mass-oriented coercive apparatus is also better at detecting and responding to changes in the nature of threats than its coup-proofed counterpart, leading to predictable patterns of institutional change that are neither entirely path dependent nor entirely in keeping with the optimization predicted by rational design.

Greitens, Sheena Chestnut. Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. Cambridge University Press. 2016. p. 4-5

Sheena was in the Oxford M.Phil in International Relations program during the same two years as I was, and we both served on the executive of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group.


Governing council elections

My friend Amanda Harvey-Sachez, who played a central role in the fossil fuel divestment campaign at U of T, has just been elected to the university’s governing council as one of two representatives for full-time undergraduates.

Unfortunately, the student members are constrained in how they are allowed to participate in the council. Notably, they cannot add items to the agenda.

It’s interesting to see that graduate students from Physical Sciences and Life Sciences seem to vote a lot more than those from Humanities and Social Sciences. The physical and life science representative got 380 votes in a race of five people. The humanities winner got 88 votes in a race between six.

Peter Dauvergne on environmentalism as a social movement

Saying mainstream environmentalism now reflects the interests and concerns of the rich is like coming upon a river of spawning salmon and noting the colour red. There are naturally many shades of difference. Not all of the mainstream, everywhere, has to the same extent come to embrace markets, corporations, and technologies as solutions. Nor does everyone have equal faith in the value of economic growth, CSR, and eco-consumerism as ways to move toward global sustainability. And nor is everyone equally pragmatic, calling for “evolution not revolution.” Environmentalism will always be a “movement of movements,” with a great diversity of values and visions surfacing out of a turbulent sea of informal groupings and formal organizations. Environmentalists share a commitment to try to protect the environment, yet sharp differences even exist in the understanding of the word “environment,” from those who mean nature (wildlife and ecosystems) to those who really mean living spaces for humans (cities, towns, parks, and beaches).7 (p. 6-7)

7. The phrase “movement of movements” is more often used to describe the global resistance to capitalism and globalization than to characterize global environmentalism. I use the phrase, however, to emphasize the diversity of environmentalism, which itself overlaps with movements against capitalism and globalization (and for global justice). For a discussion of this phrase in relation to anti-globalization activism and alter-globalization campaigns (offering social justice alternatives to globalization), see Tom Mertes, ed. A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible (Verso, 2004). For a sense of the great diversity of environmentalism, see Further Readings, “Environmental Activism (“insider” critiques of),” “Environmental Discourses and Movements (varieties of),” “Environmental Justice Movements,” “Environmental NGOs and Transnational Networks,” “Environmentalism (developing countries),” “Environmentalism (overviews) and “Voluntary Simplicity, Localization, and Eco-Villages.” (p. 154-5)

Dauvergne, Peter. Environmentalism of the Rich. MIT Press; Cambridge. 2016.

Winter lows

I haven’t been doing especially well in the last little while. To begin with, I don’t feel like I am making adequate progress on the PhD project. Also, my wrist continues to be quite painful — to a degree that impedes returning to Judo. It has been illustrating the degree to which Judo had become an organizing and de-stressing force since September.

It’s not easy to identify every factor contributing to this malaise, but the effects are evident. It’s especially self-defeating in the case of the thesis. Waking up every day full of anxiety about lack of progress doesn’t serve the aim of making progress. I can also sense how I am even more anxious and irritable than usual, partly because of how I see myself responding to minor issues (like my coat rack collapsing, leaving me with far more coats than wardrobe space, and thus a room strewn with random garments).

I know the appropriate response is to focus on self-care, but that can feel self-defeating too — like choosing to relax for a while in the hope that it will make you so much more productive in the near future that you end up ahead.

Laval divesting from fossil fuels

Yesterday, Quebec’s Université Laval announced that it will become Canada’s first university to fully divest from fossil fuels:

“Today, Université Laval commits to taking responsible action to switch its endowment fund investments in fossil energy to other types of investments, such as renewable energy,” announced Éric Bauce, Executive Vice Rector in charge of sustainable development, while confirming that Université Laval is the first university in Canada to do so. To do this, Université Laval will form a responsible investment advisory committee, including student representatives, who will be tasked with recommending methods, practices, and actions. Furthermore, an annual progress report on the investment transition will be released.”

The story was covered by Le Devoir, Ricochet, and le Soleil.

The student group which successfully campaigned for divestment — ULaval sans fossiles — has been organizing since November.